2009 Brings Yet Another Ridiculous Debate Over Earmarks

Posted March 16, 2009 at 4:20pm

Is anyone else as bored and frustrated with the ongoing earmark debate as I am? You should be.

[IMGCAP(1)]Why are earmarks, which are such a small part of the federal budget, always such a large part of the annual budget debate? Compared to all of the much more significant — in terms of economics, philosophy and dollars — budget issues that need to be discussed and decided, earmarks don’t even qualify as a top-10 concern, let alone something that should take up as much time and energy as they have the past few weeks. The seemingly constant fight over earmarks is a total distraction from everything else that needs to be considered and not at all worthy of anyone’s time.

The earmark debate is based on three very large and enduring myths.

First, contrary to what’s constantly either said or hinted at, eliminating an earmark does not result in lower spending. An earmark is nothing more than an agreement on how to allocate part of an appropriation. Cutting the earmark simply eliminates the allocation; the size of the appropriation remains the same.

Second, and also contrary to earmark mythology, cutting an earmark doesn’t mean favored projects won’t be funded. The only thing that’s accomplished when an earmark is removed is that the decision on how to allocate the funds is moved from Congress to a federal department or agency. Not only does that mean the overall spending isn’t reduced, it also means the project could still be funded. The department or agency that receives the funds may decide on its own that a project recommended by a Member of Congress is worthy. Removing the earmark would then have been of no value whatsoever.

Third, as much as earmark opponents would have us believe the opposite, the fact that allocations are made by a department or agency doesn’t mean the decisions will be made according to a strict checklist list of rigid and impartial criteria. As I wrote a little over a year ago, many funding proposals are not objectively comparable and that ultimately adds subjectivity to the decision process. The fact that the decisions are made by departments and agencies that are headed by administration appointees and overseen by Congress virtually guarantees that subjectivity will be a part of the system, no matter who makes the ultimate allocation decision.

Critics frequently say federal spending would be lower if the allocations were eliminated because Members would have less interest in voting for the spending bills. Just the opposite is true. If earmarks are completely eliminated and the allocation decision is moved to an agency, then the only way lawmakers will be able to get funds for their districts or states is by voting for the bill and then pushing the executive branch to see the merits of the specific projects that they want funded. Many more Members could end up voting for an appropriation because no one’s request for funds would yet have been refused.

The leadership or chairmen would then be in a position to say their project could, should and would be funded. Letters would be sent and floor colloquies would take place with Members asking whether a project could be accommodated in the appropriation being considered. Because the answer would always be “yes,— removing earmarks actually could increase the incentive to vote for appropriations.

This is not just theory. The debates on budget resolutions have frequently included communications like this between the Budget chairmen and individual Members of the House and Senate. The rank and file wanted some type of assurance that, even though it didn’t specifically say so, the budget resolution being considered would accommodate the funds they were seeking, or that it wouldn’t preclude the adoption of a certain tax cut that they were championing. The affirmative answer provided the justification that they needed to explain their vote back home.

A budget resolution does not include specific line items or program-by-program details and, therefore, is like an appropriation without earmarks. House Members and Senators often can be persuaded to vote for it because it doesn’t prevent the tax and spending changes that they prefer from being considered, even though the actual changes are never made in the budget resolution itself.

That’s what would happen if earmarks were eliminated from appropriations bills. In effect, every Member who wanted assurance that his or her favored spending or taxing project could be funded would get it. The fight would simply shift to another venue.

If earmark critics are truly interested in lowering overall federal spending, they are focused on the wrong target. Instead, they should be proposing to reduce the amount of overall spending in each appropriation itself.

But if earmark critics are interested in lowering federal spending, they also need to think far more broadly. Instead of earmarks, the focus should be on whether the government should continue to do all of the big things that it is currently doing. Earmarks are such a small part of overall federal spending that even if appropriations were reduced when earmarks were cut, which they are not, the effect on the budget would be barely noticeable.

So, as I said last February, this has to make you wonder why anyone is spending any time on any of this.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.